Agudath Israel Hails Court Ruling Nullifying NYS “Substantial Equivalency” Guidelines

A New York State Supreme Court judge in Albany has invalidated the State Education Department (SED)’s recently enacted guidelines for evaluating the education provided at private schools. Agudath Israel of America, one of the plaintiff groups that challenged the SED guidelines in court, welcomed the ruling as “a major victory in the battle to preserve the educational autonomy of yeshivos and other nonpublic schools.”

Under New York State law, nonpublic schools must offer education that is “at least substantially equivalent” to that which is offered in local public schools. This law, which was enacted in the late 1800’s, never gave yeshivos or other nonpublic schools any serious difficulties, as it was widely understood that the nonpublic schools offered a superior education – in the yeshiva community, through an intensive dual academic program of religious and secular studies.

However, the State Education Department on November 20, 2018 promulgated new “Substantial Equivalency Guidance and Tool Kits,” establishing timelines by which each nonpublic school in New York State must be proactively visited and evaluated by its local public school district. Among other things, the new SED guidelines require schools to comply with an extensive checklist of specific courses that must be taught at each grade level, and in some cases even the amount of time that must be devoted to those courses.

Recognizing that the new SED guidelines would constitute an unprecedented intrusion on the independence of the yeshiva community, Agudath Israel joined with PEARLS, Torah Umesorah, five major yeshivos and a group of parents in bringing a lawsuit challenging the legal validity of the new guidelines on several grounds – most notably, that the Commissioner of Education had not followed the state-mandated procedure for promulgating a new rule or regulation, thereby depriving interested parties an opportunity to have full input in the process, and thereby nullifying the new guidelines. Similar lawsuits were filed by two other plaintiff groups: one representing the state’s independent school community, the other representing the Catholic School community.

Earlier this week, on April 15, New York State Justice Christina L. Ryba held a hearing on the three plaintiff groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction, through which they hoped to stay enforcement of the new guidelines during the pendency of the lawsuits. In her ruling today, Justice Ryba went a step further: she ruled definitively that the new guidelines were null and void, as the Commissioner of Education had failed to comply with the statutory requirements governing the promulgation of new rules and regulations.

Agudath Israel’s executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel hailed the court’s ruling. “Strict enforcement of the new regulations would have wreaked havoc in many if not most yeshivos in New York. There is nothing more important to the yeshiva community than the independence of our educational institutions. Today’s ruling preserves that independence, and will allow parents to continue sending their children to yeshivos secure in the knowledge that fundamental chinuch-related decisions will be in the hands of yeshiva leaders rather than government bureaucrats. Boruch HaShem!.” Rabbi Zwiebel lauded the work of Avi Schick of the law firm Trautman Sanders, who represented the Jewish plaintiff groups in the court proceeding, and whose expert counsel has guided the yeshiva community since the onset of the challenge to the yeshivos’ independence. He also thanked the Orthodox Union for its effort to submit an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in support of the plaintiffs; and he singled out for special praise his Agudath Israel colleagues Avrohom Weinstock, Esq. and Ami Bazov, Esq. for the work they did on this matter, including the submission of affidavits in the court proceeding.